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8 Insights Into Navigating Cultural Complexity

Afrika Mhlophe lives in Gqeberha (formerly known as Port Elizabeth) with his wife Lindelwa and their two children. He is a pastor at Good News Community Church, a sought-after speaker, and the author of three books that deal with what he calls “contemporary and contentious issues” – Christianity and the Veneration of Ancestors (2013), Freed by God But Imprisoned By Culture (2015), and A Passion For Position (2018). This summary of his interview for the VUCA series was written by Lise-Marie Keyser, and you can view the video here. 


“Christianity that doesn’t influence a person’s way of life, values, and principles is not true faith,” declares pastor Afrika Mhlophe. “Even though we might at first have a conceptual understanding of Christ, He must become real. The Word must ‘become flesh’ (Joh. 1:14). So the incarnation of Christ in our hearts should start changing us from the inside out. How can Christianity be real, and over time have no impact on our culture?”  

He continues, “Yet we often find this dichotomy, this distinction between people’s cultures and their faith. Something is wrong – there needs to be a narrowing of the gap.” 

“The problem comes in when people see ‘their culture’ as sacrosanct, untouchable, and beyond scrutiny – sometimes even by God.” Mhlophe raises the point that ancestralism (the practice of venerating your ancestors) exerts a strong influence in African culture, and African religion. “But we need to have these difficult conversations from a biblical perspective. We need to walk into these spaces and use the Word of God to answer questions, and learn how to navigate these conflicting issues,” he says. 

Of course, “Cultural diversity within the business context is very important, especially in Africa,” Mhlophe acknowledges. “There are about 3,000 different tribes on the continent – we are the most ethnically diverse place on earth. And although we have been raised to believe that diversity is a strength,” he explains, “our practical experience shows us that diversity often brings division. We contest the terrain. We practice ethnic rivalry and bring what we consider to be truth into our business and public spaces.” 

1.   First observe 

The first implication for Christian business leaders, he maintains, is that “we need to realise that when we walk into a business space, people are not empty vessels. They are already ‘filled’ – they already come with preconceived concepts and ideas, with their understanding of the basic things of life.”  

He continues, “So the first thing to do in navigating cultural complexity, is to observe people. We can clearly see what people value by the way their priorities play out in their lives.” 

“I’ve been privileged to minister across South Africa and in some other parts of the world, including Estonia (formerly part of the Soviet Union). What I found both amazing and challenging, is how vastly different people’s cultures can be, even when they physically look the same. Just as the Estonians are not the same as the Russians, we need to realise that culture is more than race. We will not master cultural complexity if we assume that one racial group has one culture.”  

 2.   Think about what you want to achieve 

“Then, we need to think about what we are trying to achieve,” Mhlophe says. “We can all look at the same thing, but see it differently based on the cultural filters we have. So there has to be a goal greater than all of us.” 

“And to achieve that goal, we need to bring people into a ‘higher system’, so to speak. Every business has a culture, and this culture has to be more prominent than the different subcultures in order to dictate ‘this is how we do things here’.” Mhlophe elaborates, “Yet, we cannot have a situation where one group feels that they are losing while another group is winning. Everybody must equally ‘lose’, for all of us to gain.” 

“The point is that we all hold on for dear life when we feel our way of life is ‘under attack’ and we have nothing else to aspire to. But when something greater becomes accessible, we have the confidence to let go of what we have. So there has to be a trade-off. Employees have to feel a sense of ownership of the business – enough for them to feel that it is worth trading what they’ve held onto so far. As business leaders, we have to find a way for people to buy into the business culture, because people will only change when they feel the ‘new’ is more valuable than the ‘familiar’.” 

3.   Christ has to be preeminent 

Mhlophe then explains what he sees as the ‘higher system’ of culture. “If Christ is to be Christ, He has to have preeminence – the gospel has to be above our ethnicity or socially constructed ideas. We think of Christ as a Saviour, but we hardly think of him as Lord – yet He is Lord and Saviour. He is described by the Greek word, kyrios, which means ‘lord or master’. When somebody is lord, everyone else is a subject. If there’s a king in a kingdom, subjects don’t make their own rules – they submit to the rules of the king. So, if we are truly in God’s kingdom, we are subject to the gospel, and the gospel is higher than our own culture.” 

He goes on to say that “unless we have a revelation that we ‘have been bought with a price’ and that we don’t belong to ourselves (1 Cor. 6:20), we will always have difficulty with submission. The kingdom of God is an invitation to come and die, that we may live (Luk. 9:24). Christ himself said, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’ (Luk. 9:23). This means that there are instances when we have to deny or trade off our own culture, for something more valuable.” 

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul puts his cultural credentials on display. “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:4–8). 

“Therefore, as believers, we have to come to a point where we contrast what we think we have in our own culture, with what we have in Christ. Until that time comes, we will always think we have something more valuable,” Mhlophe says. “Indeed, in the book of Revelations we read, ‘…you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realising that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked’ (Rev. 3:17). We have to come to the point where we see how poor we are in contrast with what Christ offers us. Only then can we truly take up our ‘ministry of reconciliation’ (2 Cor. 5:18),” Mhlophe declares, “because only then are we not trying to elevate our own culture above others.” 

4.   Earthly tools of conflict resolution are not enough 

It is obvious to Mhlophe that business leaders need maturity of character and emotional intelligence in order to successfully navigate cultural complexity, but he also believes that “we cannot resolve conflict with earthly tools only, because these can sometimes contribute to the conflict. Christ called us ‘peacemakers’ because He knew there would be conflict, and He intended for us to make our faith visible in these contexts. This means that prayer and relying on supernatural insight from the Spirit of God is also necessary.” 

He refers to a recent instance of working with a company in Port Elizabeth to solve issues of ill-discipline and theft. Instead of dealing with the conflict through purely disciplinary measures, they recognised that they needed another way to change the culture within the company. Management identified a few individuals with potential, and invested in them through a mentoring process to become peer-influencers. Because these peers were present in the canteen and stock room when management was not, theft and stock losses became less and less. 

5.   Engage with people as individuals 

One of the lessons Mhlophe highlights from the above example is that “it is very difficult to try and influence a group of people when there’s a mob spirit.” In his experience, it is much more effective to engage with people as individuals. “Business leaders should identify the ‘sparks of light’ in the company. God is always working. Our job is to find out where He is working. Who are the honest ones, who arrive at work on time, who work hard even without supervision? How can we invest more in these people? How can we reward and promote them publicly?” he asks. 

6.   Cultural inclusion reduces the negative impact of assumption 

“An important thing to remember,” Mhlophe reminds us, “is that we have no access to another cultural group until one of them is part of us. Knowledge increases through exposure.” 

We easily assume things about other people, and “the less access we have to their world, the more deprived we are in our business context,” Mhlophe explains. “We need to include different cultures in our leadership teams, so that we have a representative on the ‘inside’ who can advise us about the impact of decisions when they are being made.” Cultural inclusion is much more than meeting a legal requirement or being politically correct – it is wisdom. 

7.   You need to lead people from where they are 

Mhlophe acknowledges that there are instances where organisations intentionally create opportunities for career development, only to be met with frustration when certain ethnic groups struggle to take hold of these opportunities.  

He responds that, “In general, African cultures are collectivist and European cultures are individualistic. So white people naturally gravitate towards leadership because of their skills and cultural exposure, while many black people don’t believe in themselves the same way. Sometimes we can build on a shared foundation, at other times we need to start from scratch.”  

Illustrating his point, Mhlophe comments that “Moses couldn’t prophesy the Israelites out of slavery into their promised land – he had to go back and lead them from where they were. And not only did he have to go back to Egypt, he had to confront the pharaoh that held them captive, which was a very difficult thing to do.”  

“Leaders in business unfortunately cannot avoid this aspect of navigating cultural complexity. We have to go to people who have been treated badly by those in power, who don’t believe anything good about themselves, and work with them where they are, because we’re trying to get them somewhere. Leaders may be a visionary go-getters, but they also need to have some pastoral skills, because people are fragile.” 

8.   How we see ourselves determines how we see others 

“If our identity isn’t defined by Christ as our master, it is defined by our culture and our social context,” Mhlophe maintains. “I don’t see myself primarily as a black man – I see myself primarily as a child of God. But when I see myself primarily as black, then I see you primarily as white, rather than as a brother. How we see ourselves, determines how we see others.” 

He concludes, “More than 50 times in the New Testament, Christ says: ‘I tell you the truth…’ He didn’t have a high regard for our opinions. We need come to the Word of God, not to confirm what we think is true, but to discover truth in more of its fullness. We all have parts of the truth, but only when we walk into conflict in submission to the Word of God, will we master cultural complexity.” 

Afrika Mhlophe

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